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First-place Falcons not getting ahead of themselves

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Atlanta Falcons supposedly were on life support before they headed to London three games ago. Then across the pond, a blown 21-point lead and loss to the Detroit Lions had them bound for the morgue.

Guess what? The Falcons are alive, and Matt Bryant is kicking.

Sunday's 19-17 win over the Carolina Panthers -- made possible in large part by Bryant's four field goals, including the game-deciding 44-yarder -- has the 4-6 Falcons in an improbable position: tied for first in the NFC South. This is the same Falcons team that dropped five straight at one point and had the national media already declaring Mike Smith out as head coach.

Again, the Falcons are in first place.

"I think it's good," quarterback Matt Ryan said with a chuckle. "It's been a different year, for sure. But you play to be relevant in November and December. And as quirky as this year has been, we're relevant. And we've got to keep going."

New Orleans also is 4-6 following Sunday's 27-10 loss to Cincinnati. But the Falcons already defeated the Saints in the season opener and have a 4-0 record in the NFC South right now.

Look at it this way: If the playoffs started today, the Falcons would be in as the NFC South champs, owning the tiebreaker over the Saints.

"Our backs were just against the wall," cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "Every article that talked about the Atlanta Falcons a couple of weeks ago didn't give us a chance. So, we're not going to get too happy. We like where we're at, but we still could be even better."

The last part of Trufant's statement somewhat summed up Sunday's game. The Falcons left a lot of opportunities on the field yet were able to squeak out a physical road win against the reeling Panthers (3-7-1). The offense was 1-for-3 in the red zone and 5-for-15 on third down. The Falcons scored just three points after Trufant intercepted Cam Newton in the third quarter and put the offense at the Panthers' 14-yard line with a with a 19-yard return. There were questionable play calls, including a couple of wide receiver screens that failed. The Falcons seemed to play too conservatively on offense, in spurts, as result of the Panthers' zone defense.

And Devin Hester's unnecessary roughness penalty following a third-quarter melee pushed the Falcons out of field-goal range while leading 16-3. Hester then fumbled the ball over to Carolina the next play following his 15-yard penalty.

The Falcons eventually surrendered momentum and what was a 13-point third-quarter lead when Newton found Philly Brown for a 47-yard touchdown on poor one-on-one coverage by Robert McClain, who replaced an injured Robert Alford (wrist).

Through all those hiccups, the Falcons showed more resilience than they have all season. Give Ryan credit for engineering a 12-play, 54-yard scoring drive right after Newton's touchdown to Brown gave the Panthers a 17-16 lead. Three Ryan connections to Harry Douglas for 29 yards, including a critical 8-yard pickup on third-and-5 from Carolina's 35-yard line, were key in setting up Bryant's decisive 44-yarder.

"I thought it was guys making plays under pressure," Smith said of the go-ahead drive. "I thought Matt did a very good job running our no-huddle offense throughout the ballgame. We were a little bit more in an up-tempo situation on that sequence, but it was great to see Matt and Harry connect. We've missed some games with Harry throughout the season and it was good to have him back out there."

The game wasn't truly decided until the final play, when Graham Gano's 63-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Falcons rookie Ra'Shede Hageman. It was Gano's missed 46-yarder with 1:26 left in regulation that proved to be more costly for the Panthers.

Regardless of the outcome, the Falcons have no reason to get ahead of themselves. Although they return home for three of the next four games, they'll face four teams with six-plus wins: Cleveland, Arizona, Green Bay and Pittsburgh. The game against the Packers is on the road, and Green Bay is 5-0 at home this season.

Smith cautioned his team to block out the NFC South standings and continue to take the one-game-at-a-time approach. Safety Dwight Lowery offered a similar-type speech.

"It's only one game," Lowery said, "but when things don't look our way, we're not hanging our heads. We're just having a better approach to everything we're doing.

"We're not in the playoffs. We ain't in no Super Bowl. We haven't won the division. We haven't won anything. We've just won one game. And that's all we can control right now."